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Thomas Molloy: Radical change is possible if FG has the stomach

WHILE Fine Gael's pledge to save around €9bn by cutting 30,000 jobs from the public sector over the next five years has the potential to make a significant dent in the State's borrowing, it is likely to present some practical difficulties and end up costing rather more than the party appears to believe.

The practical difficulties are perhaps the most obvious: Fine Gael staunchly maintains it can achieve the cuts without compulsory redundancies as civil servants retire and others take a package.

But it is still too early to know whether the longest recession in the State's history has sapped the willingness of ordinary public sector workers to strike out on their own.

The previous government botched two attempts to cut numbers in the health service and analysts have to go back as far as 1987 to find any public sector cuts that even remotely resemble those now being contemplated.

The evidence of Mary Harney's attempt to reform the Health Service Executive (HSE) late last year does not augur well.

The former Minister for Health said in early November that she expected around 5,000 staff to agree to leave the HSE by the end of December.

After the deadline for applications, just 3,800 people had applied for redundancy and more than 800 of these applications were subsequently withdrawn, leaving the plan to reduce staff and costs in ruins.

Quite why Fine Gael now believes it can shed at least 8,000 more people from the HSE is still not clear. Nor is it clear why the party believes that other parts of the public sector are likely to be any more enthusiastic about taking early redundancy in this climate.

The cost of such a programme is also hard to calculate. Fine Gael yesterday said it would cost between €800m and €1bn to make the extra 18,000 jobs that it now expects to make on top of the 12,000 which already constitute government policy.

Party sources say the calculations are based on Ms Harney's ill-fated HSE programme -- but that plan calculated that it would cost €400m to cut 5,000 jobs, mostly in middle management, clerical or catering.

Using these figures, it suggests the cost of shedding 18,000 staff would be closer to €1.44bn. While this may still sound cheap, it is some distance from the €800m cited yesterday.

Some of the party's politicians have made much of the idea that the cuts won't hit frontline staff -- but the truth is the party is simply hoping the cuts won't affect frontline services.

Staff will be hit. Many, many workers who consider themselves to be frontline staff, including nurses and gardai, will be surplus to requirements under the programme and it has to be said that there are good reasons for this.

Trade union pressure has ensured that many nurses and gardai perform routine clerical jobs that could and should be performed by clerical staff. To take another example, the State has 42 laboratories (and must still still send many DNA samples overseas for analysis) when one large laboratory would probably suffice.

Leaving aside the question of cost, the likely take-up of voluntary redundancies during an economic crisis and the possible effect on services, the actual implementation of the party's exciting and sometimes thrilling call for change presents Fine Gael with a formidable challenge even if the jobs cuts are ignored completely.

While polite about the quality of the existing service, Fine Gael's plan shows the party is alive to the problems within the public sector.

The dizzying range of new initiatives shows the party understands the problem of uninspired and insulting service that almost every citizen is familiar with.

The question is whether the party leaders have the stomach for the fight.

If they have, there is a lot of change coming down the road.

Irish Independent